‘Hunter and I got on instantly because we were so different’
The story of the partnership between Ralph Steadman and Hunter S. Thompson — the artist and the trailblazing gonzo journalist — ahead of the New York sale of a rare original Steadman drawing for Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
In the 1970s, Hunter S. Thompson and Ralph Steadman changed American journalism for ever with collaborations on stories such as The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72.
Thompson was the 6ft 5in, shaven-headed writer-provocateur who wore a floppy sun hat and yellow-tinted glasses, carried a doctor’s bag filled with hallucinogenic drugs and possessed a voracious appetite for mind-altering substances of every kind, guns and chaos. And yet Jann Wenner, the proprietor of Rolling Stone, for whom the pair produced some of their most celebrated work, once said that he believed Steadman was the more unhinged of the two.
Ralph Steadman was born in 1936 in the north-west of England but grew up in north Wales. His mother worked in a shop and his father travelled the country selling women’s clothing and underwear. Having begun training as an aircraft engineer and as a store manager at Woolworths, the 18-year-old Steadman spotted an advert in a newspaper and decided to become a cartoonist. ‘I didn’t have any strong political affiliations, but I did have a contempt for politicians generally,’ he told The Telegraph newspaper in 2013. ‘They always seemed to be saying something they didn’t believe and I’ve always hated the idea of dishonesty.’
After getting his first work published, Steadman relocated to London where he became a member of The Cartoonists’ Club and met Gerald Scarfe, the newspaper cartoonist and illustrator. ‘I remember he said he liked my line,’ Steadman recalled. ‘No one had ever said that to me before. As we became friends, I realised we had a lot in common. We both wanted to be Angry Artists — that’s because we were going to change the world. And we have changed it.’
Both worked for the satirical magazine Private Eye during the Sixties but by the end of the decade, Steadman confessed he had grown frustrated by ‘the terrible Englishness’ of his assignments. His political cartoons for The Times had become so savage, indeed, that he was fired on the grounds that his work was ‘too seditious’.
In 1970, Steadman decided to try to find more exciting work in America. He had only been in New York for a week when he was contacted by Scanlan’s Monthly, a magazine specialising in political muckraking, which was ultimately subject to an investigation by the FBI during the Nixon administration. One of Scanlan’s writers, Steadman was informed, was heading to Louisville to cover the Kentucky Derby horse race.
Steadman recalled to The Independent newspaper how the art editor of the magazine had described this particular writer’s demands: ‘He wants an artist to nail the decadent, depraved faces of the local establishment... He doesn’t want a photographer. He wants something weird and we’ve seen your work.’
‘I was told that the writer would be this 6ft 5in ex-Hell’s Angel with a shaved head who would be carrying a doctor’s bag,’ said Steadman. ‘I was given his name, Hunter S. Thompson, but it meant nothing.’ Thompson’s star had risen with the publication of his 1967 book, Hell’s Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs, which had seen him living with a gang for a year.
Steadman soon discovered that Thompson was equally frustrated with his lot, albeit his ire was directed at the photographers he was paired with — and specifically their refusal to launch themselves into his stories in the manner he required. This, as Steadman told The Guardian newspaper, would not be a problem for him: ‘I always thought the ideal was that my drawings would be done while a security guard had me in a headlock.’
Gonzo journalism was inspired by William Faulkner’s notion that ‘fiction is often the best fact’, with the writer central to the action
It took Thompson and Steadman two days to find each other. Their first encounter, Steadman recounted, was suitably memorable. ‘I had turned around and two fierce eyes, firmly socketed inside a bullet-shaped head, were staring at a strange growth I was nurturing on the end of my chin. “Holy shit!” he exclaimed. “They said I was looking for a matted-haired geek with string warts and I guess I've found him”.’
Thompson decided to take Steadman for a drink at Louisville’s most illustrious members’ club, where the cartoonist proceeded to upset the wife of a leading member with one particularly unflattering drawing. Concluding it was time to make their exit, Thompson produced a can of Mace from his doctor’s bag and sprayed it around the room.
At the end of a week, Steadman flew home to England resigned to the fact that this would almost certainly be their one and only assignment together. Rather than writing up the feature, Thompson decided to submit only his notebooks. Scanlan’s Monthly ran them as they were, and the story, The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved, marked the first appearance of what became known as gonzo journalism — a style inspired by William Faulkner’s notion that ‘fiction is often the best fact’, and one that made the writer central to the action.
‘Hunter triggered something. Suddenly I knew I could draw with a reckless point of view’ — Ralph Steadman
‘What a person to meet on your first trip to America,’ Steadman told Wonderland magazine decades later. ‘It was like hitting a bullseye first time… Hunter and I got on instantly because we were so different. If we’d both been tough guys it wouldn’t have worked. He could be mean. But it was a meanness we both understood. Hunter triggered something. Suddenly I knew I could draw with a reckless point of view.’
Three months later, Scanlan’s Monthly sent Thompson and Steadman on another assignment, this time to Rhode Island to cover the America’s Cup sailing event. While mulling over what to do, the artist took one of Thompson’s psilocybin pills and began hallucinating. They were bobbing around on a small boat in the harbour at the time.
‘Hunter produced two cans of spray paint and asked me what I wanted to do with them,’ Steadman recalled. ‘I said, “Let’s spray ‘Fuck The Pope’ on the side of one of the million-dollar yachts. Tomorrow the boat’ll come out into the harbour — all the rednecks on board, standing proud with their arms folded — with ‘Fuck The Pope’ on the side… That will be our story”.’
Caught by a security guard, Thompson decided to create a diversion by setting off two distress flares and setting fire to some boats. ‘We managed to escape to a nearby coffee bar,’ Steadman explained. ‘The following afternoon we found out that Scanlan’s Monthly had gone bankrupt.’ The story was never published.
In 1971, Thompson set off in a car for Las Vegas with his friend Oscar Zeta Acosta, an American attorney, politician, novelist and activist. They ventured into the Nevada desert armed with two bags of grass, 75 pellets of mescaline, five sheets of blotter acid, a salt shaker half-full of cocaine, a comprehensive menu of uppers and downers, a quart of tequila, a quart of rum, a case of Budweiser, a pint of raw ether and two dozen amyls.
The resulting story, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream, recounted the drug-crazed descent into insanity undertaken by Raoul Duke, one of Thompson’s literary alter egos, and Dr. Gonzo, an overweight Samoan attorney based on Acosta. It is hailed as a landmark of counter-culture literature, and one of the most memorable and hilarious critiques of contemporary American society.
In a subsequent letter to editor Jim Silberman of Random House in July 1971, Thompson described his writing in the story as ‘a high-speed minor classic’ and ‘the definitive epitaph statement for the Benevolent Drug Era of the 60s.’ The writer felt society was ‘heading for a far more vicious time’ before deciding that, in fact, ‘we are already there’.
‘Hunter had brought back a few bits [from Las Vegas] like beer mats and labels. Nothing of any use. He said: “Get Ralph on the phone”’ — Ralph Steadman
It was in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas that Thompson used the term ‘gonzo’ for the first time in reference to his own work. ‘But what was the story?’ he wrote. ‘Nobody had bothered to say. So we would have to drum it up on our own. Free Enterprise. The American Dream. Horatio Alger gone mad on drugs in Las Vegas. Do it now : pure Gonzo journalism.’
Random House wanted to publish the story as a book, while Rolling Stone was desperate for the serial rights. Unfortunately, there were no pictures to accompany the text. ‘Hunter had brought back a few bits like beer mats and labels. Nothing of any use,’ recounted Steadman, who had never been near Las Vegas when he was given the commission. ‘Hunter said: “Get Ralph on the phone’’. They sent the manuscript and a photo of Oscar Zeta Acosta, the real Gonzo, over to me and three days — and a lot of beer and brandy — later, I’d completed it all. I was quite pleased with them, I remember. I thought I’d managed to complement the style of Hunter’s writing.’
When the drawings arrived, Thompson exclaimed, ‘Ye gods’. In his opinion, every one of them was perfect. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was first published in two consecutive issues of Rolling Stone magazine in 1971, followed by the publication of the novel in July the following year. It was a huge hit and Steadman’s deranged drawings became instantly iconic.
The drawing by Ralph Steadman offered in New York on 5 December was used to illustrate the front cover of Rolling Stone number 96 (25 November 1971), in which the second part was published. It appears to be the first time that any original artwork from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas has been offered at auction.
Working with Thompson produced a change in Steadman’s work. ‘My drawing got stronger, less flaccid,’ he said. ‘He exposed me to the screaming lifestyle of the US.’
In a letter dated May 1970 to Donald Goddard, an editor on Scanlan’s Monthly, Thompson reflected on the impact Steadman, in turn, had made on his own work: ‘His awkward sensitivity made me see, once again, some of the rot in this country that I’ve been living with for so long that I could only see it, now, through somebody else’s fresh eyes’.
Drugs, alcohol, illness and age eventually took their toll on Hunter S. Thompson. ‘I remember him telling me that he felt trapped in this life and that he dreaded being in an old people’s home,’ Steadman told The Telegraph. ‘He said that he had this vision of this old crone crawling across the floor towards him about to fondle his balls. I did become increasingly concerned. I had this feeling something might happen, that he might take his own life.’
In February 2005, Steadman’s phone rang in the middle of the night and he was given the news that Thompson had shot himself dead at his home in Woody Creek, Colorado. He was 67 years old. ‘I can’t say that I was surprised,’ recalled the illustrator who has published award-winning books on Leonard da Vinci and Sigmund Freud, and illustrated editions of Alice in Wonderland and Animal Farm. ‘I think in retrospect it depressed me more than I anticipated. His death left a big gap in my life.’
To this day, the partnership between Ralph Steadman and Hunter S. Thompson stands as one of the most effective collaborations between artist and author in the history of book illustration.